15, 2005: One summer in the early 1970s, Hilde Maingay
telephoned the Cape Cod agricultural extension agent to ask
about the average yields of vegetables and grains on the Cape.
The agent told her that the Cape, with its beds of glacial
till, couldn’t produce anything besides cranberries
and some strawberries. Hilde hung up the phone with a shrug
and walked outside to her extremely productive organic gardens.
“If I hadn’t already grown an abundance of vegetables
on our land,” she noted soon after her talk with the
agent, “I should have stopped gardening and gone into
the construction business” (p. 26).
Sprinkled with amusing anecdotes like this, Nancy Jack Todd’s
A Safe and Sustainable World is the story of the
New Alchemy Institute (NAI), a small non-profit research and
education organization with the goal of exploring ways to
create a safer and more sustainable world. It leads the reader
through the ups and downs of an innovative and highly influential
institution and shows how visionaries coalesced around critical
environmental issues of the day.
The concept of NAI began in the San Diego living room of
John and Nancy Jack Todd in 1969, just when the world was
embracing the need for Earth Day. Groups of students, professors,
and community members frequently joined the Todds for informal
evening seminars to investigate how basic human needs—food,
shelter, energy—could be met with less impact on the
environment. Many of the participants thought that basic land
sustainability was achievable, but in an age before the popularization
of intensive organic agriculture, green architecture, and
alternative energy, they wondered how.
John Todd’s answer: try it, and prove scientifically
that it can be done.
The first step in this process, after a move across the country
to Cape Cod and much planning and sweat, was the installation
of what was then considered a very hip construction: the geodesic
dome. “In the course of a summer Sunday afternoon in
1971,” writes Todd, “as children ran and shouted
and adults worked and talked, sustained on infusions of beer,
we had our first New Alchemy dome raising” (p. 14).
This modest and somewhat idyllic beginning, however, may
disguise the seriousness and ambition of NAI researchers,
as well as the precision of their scientific inquiry. The
dome was soon surrounded by experimental organic gardens,
compost piles, fields of wheat, aquaculture ponds, windmills,
and solar-algae ponds. Volunteers began coming en masse on
Saturdays to learn, work, and bathe in the energy of innovation.
Extensive greenhouse-like bioshelters were constructed, first
on Cape Cod and then on Prince Edward Island. The projects
were vast, the energy was endless, and the soils kept getting
richer and richer.
Though much of what NAI helped discover and publicize no
longer seems as novel, it must be remembered that a cross-disciplinary
approach to the sciences was not widely accepted at the time.
The New Alchemists were trying to prove that nature could
be used as a model for human-made systems by integrating aquaculture,
agriculture, forestry, and wind and solar energy. “Where
we differed from mainstream science,” writes Todd, “was
in our focus on sustainability, protection, and restoration—and
in freedom from the corporate funding that controls so much
scientific inquiry. Otherwise Bill and John and their colleagues
understood only too well that any scientific casualness on
our part could undermine and betray underlying goals of the
Detailed accounts of many NAI research projects are included
in A Safe and Sustainable World, as well as blueprints
and diagrams that help chart both the evolution of the Institute
and the evolution of sustainability and green architecture
in the U.S. The charming photos interspersed throughout the
book are enough to make any sustainability enthusiast yearn
to have spent a few weeks at NAI, where long-haired scientists
got their hands dirty in the name of good living.
More anecdotes of the nitty-gritty life and characters at
the Institute may have helped make for a smoother, less technical
read, but Todd nonetheless succeeds in conveying the resourceful
spirit and unique dynamism of NAI.
The final chapters of this book discuss Ocean Arks International,
the organization that John and Nancy Jack Todd launched after
the New Alchemy Institute closed in 1991. Today, Ocean Arks
applies natural systems thinking from NAI to concrete environmental
problems, restoring polluted waters through biologically based
living technologies called Ecomachines and Pond Lake Restorers.
In 2001, Ocean Arks was contracted by Tyson Foods to help
bring a large wastewater lagoon into compliance with EPA regulations.
Thus the legacy of the New Alchemy Institute continues. True
to their name, they are indeed helping transform and purify
nature through their own contemporary breed of alchemy. They
may not conjure gold from metal, as the ancient alchemists
tried to do, but who needs gold when there are so many other
pressing issues at stake?
Josh Anchors is a beekeeper, novelist, and outdoor guide
from central Maine.